First Theology: God, Scripture, and Hermeneutics

Where do you start thinking theologically? What path is the best way to begin thinking about God? In First Theology, Vanhoozer contends that "when it comes to doing theology, God must be our first thought, Scripture our second thought, and hermeneutics our third and last thought" (9).

This might strike you as odd. Why isn't God our first and last thought? Why is hermeneutics our third and last thought? How does this work itself out practically? Vanhoozer admits that "matters are not really so simple, nor so linear. Doing theology involves all three thoughts, together and at once" (9). To the end of explaining this, he says his book is "a plea for being hermeneutical about theology, and for being theological about hermeneutics. To be precise: it is an argument for the importance of treating the questions of God, Scripture and hermeneutics as one problem" (9). This is what he calls First Theology. For him, these things necessarily go together.

But doesn't this lead to a hermeneutical spiral circle? Vanhoozer answers, "Theological hermeneutics recognizes that our doctrine of God affects the way we intepret the Scriptures, while simultaneously acknowledging that our interpretation of Scripture affects our doctrine of God. Such is necessarily the case when theology is viewed as 'God-centered biblical interpretation.'"

Because of this, we cannot think of Scripture without thinking of God, and we cannot think of God apart from Scripture. What we believe about one will affect how we approach and think about the other: "we interpret Scripture as divine communicative action in order to know God; we let our knowledge of God affect our approach to Scripture" (38).

But still, isn't this reasoning circular? Isn't this faulty logic? Vanhoozer admits that there is a circular reasoning at work here, but that "it need not be vicious, so long as we remember that our interpretations are corrigible and that we are ultimately accountable to the text. The circularity in question is that of the traveler who make frequent round trip voyages. We may visit the same places, but we see new things because we are wiser for our travels" (38).

So how does he answer his initial question? How are we to do theology, and how can you start with God or Scripture without excluding one or the other? Vanhoozer responds by defining theology as "God-centered biblical interpretation. It follows that hermeneutical theology (doing theology by way of biblical interpretation) and theological hermeneutics (bringing Christian doctrine to bear on the principles and practice of interpretation) are equally ultimate" (38).
This definition of theology hinges upon the fact that "God is a trinue communicative agent" and that Scripture is the "written locus of God's communicative action." In other words, if God does something by communicating, and Scripture is the way that God has "done" that act of communication, then the notions of God and Scripture can never be separated.

But is it enough to get "First theology" right, and then neglect the rest of the Christian life? Vanhoozer ends his argument for God, Scripture and Hermeneutics as first theology by warning against what he calls "cheap innerancy" (i.e., professing the Bible's truthfulness without living it out in life). He connects success in theology with success in life. Indeed, he says, "it may be no exaggeration to say that the ultimate purpose of biblical interpration is to achieve right relationships: with God, with others and with oneself. After all, Christian truth is in the service of love" (40). He concludes that

If I speak with the tongues of Reformers and of professional theologians, and I have not personal faith in Christ, my theology is nothing but the beating of a snare drum. And if I have analytic powers and the gift of creating coherent conceptual systems of theology, so as to remove liberal objections, and have not personal hope in God, I am nothing. And if I give myself to resolving the debate between supra and infralapsarianism, and to defending innerancy, and to learning the Westminster Catechism, yea, even the larger one, so as to recite it by heart backwards and forwards, and have not love, I have gained nothing.

Vanhoozer's vision for theological hermeneutics and his articulation of the Hermeneutical Circle is instructive. I'm inclined to think that First Theology, is also the most exciting.

Vanhoozer's argument here comes from the preface and chapter one, "First Theology: Meditations in a Postmodern Toolshed," of his work First Theology: God, Scripture, Hermeneutics. The three parts of his work are divided into essays dealing with, not suprisingly, God, Scripture, and Hermeneutics.

See also, Ben Meyers review of First Theology.

June 14, 2007


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